My experience with Asian horror movies (e.g., Vital, Acacia, Ab-normal Beauty) is that they can be a major struggle to make any sense of, so I anticipated that the Japanese Premonition (Yogen in Japanese) from director Norio Tsuruta would be obscure, perhaps too much so given my lack of patience for such things. So I tried to pay as close attention as I could. I’m not going to say I ended up understanding the whole thing by a long shot, but I understood more than I expected, and most importantly I’m left with at least a decent idea of the overall story and what the ending means.
Premonition opens with a man (Hiroshi Mikami) traveling with his wife (Noriko Sakai) and young daughter (Hana Inoue). He stops to make a phone call. In the phone booth, he finds what looks like an old yellowed newspaper page, but sees that it’s dated the following day. Furthermore, there is a story about his daughter being killed in an accident. As his wife crosses the road to see what is keeping him, an out of control truck careens off the road and rams the car, killing the daughter in the back seat. In the excitement, the piece of newspaper blows away.
We flash forward, and find that the couple’s marriage has ended, partly due to the trauma of losing the daughter, and partly due to the husband’s obsessive insistence that he saw a newspaper that predicted the accident.
Secretly, though, the wife is not as dismissive of the possibility as she seems. On her own, and then after reuniting with the husband, she investigates whether there might be something to it after all. Gradually they come to find out that many people claim to have had similar experiences, always involving terrible accidents and murders and gory deaths, and that the “newspaper of terror” as it’s called is well known in certain circles that take psychics and such seriously. I believe it’s implied also that the people sometimes get the premonitions in some manner other than by seeing a newspaper page.
In any case, however they get the premonitions, apparently it’s common if not inevitable that they will become obsessed with them. In their investigations, the couple is shown a cell in an asylum where the inmate frantically wrote out all the predictions as they came to him, even using his own excrement to do so after his writing instruments were taken away from him.
Another man created a video journal documenting every prediction for years, as well as his attempts to falsify them.
Because at first, all indications are that there’s no wiggle room with these predictions, that what’s in the ominous newspaper is inevitable. Which makes it odd that the protagonist is wracked with guilt that he didn’t do something to save his daughter when he found out she was scheduled to die. But later there is evidence that maybe the people having the premonitions at least sometimes can alter the future. The indications, though, are that one can do so only by paying a great price.
For the first two-thirds to three-quarters of the movie, there are supernatural elements, and it’s certainly not completely free of ambiguity, but for the most part it makes tolerable sense and I could follow it.
Then the final quarter to a third of the movie becomes openly surreal. It’s all up for grabs what’s real, what’s a dream, what’s a delusion, what’s a premonition, what’s a flashback, what’s a parallel universe, etc. Plus it casts into doubt some of the earlier stuff that had been presented in a conventional style like it was really happening.
Though this is normally where I get frustrated and conclude that a movie is destined to be a thumbs down, I’ll admit I didn’t consistently hate the obscure stuff. There’s a real intensity to it, and some visually interesting scenes, so even as my understanding gradually lessened, I remained somewhat involved in the movie.
Then the ending actually saved the movie to some extent in my mind. It’s an overstatement to say it explains everything that comes before, that it makes sense of the whole movie. But at least it’s closer to an “ah ha!” moment than I’d allowed myself to hope for when the movie drifted into obscurity. I think I can actually say at least roughly what happens in this movie, what the protagonist does at the end and why, what we learn about this psychic phenomenon, etc.
What understanding I think I gained of the movie after digesting the ending doesn’t extend to every detail, but it makes sense of the whole. And it’s not that it’s inconsistent with any of the earlier particulars. I would say that it makes sense of some of them and renders others superfluous (though it may be that a deeper understanding than mine would make sense of those as well), but doesn’t clearly contradict any of them.
Ultimately it’s intriguing and thought-provoking enough for me to give it a mild recommendation.